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Peel Me a Grape – The Secret To Centuries As A Family Farm

Not many people can say they’ve been on a piece of land 235 years,” muses Bill Hopkins with a laugh and a shrug, “My father in law used to say the first 100 years are the hardest.”

Bill and Judy Hopkins are talking about their farm, sitting side by side at what looks like their kitchen table, featured in a short film about the farm created by their granddaughter and videographer Paloma, the youngest of seven generations raised on this property in Warren.

Perched high on a hill overlooking the glittering Lake Waramaug, Hopkins Vineyard is the oldest continuously run vineyard in the state, among a mere handful of continuously owned bicentennial farms in New England, and a pioneer in the Connecticut winemaking industry.

In 1979 Bill and Judy Hopkins sold their cows and reinvented the family farm, converting it from 200 years of tobacco and dairy farming to grapes for wine production. “The farming community thought we were crazy,” says Judy. “Nobody knew what to do with a farm winery.”

As necessity dictated, they became activists, advocating for legislation change, and the pivotal 1978 Connecticut Winery act, going back to school to learn about winemaking techniques, and founding organizations such as the Connecticut Vineyard and Wine Association—and the popular CT Wine Trail. The state’s winemaking industry now includes over 40 vineyards, and 40 years later, Hopkins continues to bottle with almost entirely estate-grown grapes.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the barn is abuzz with live music and wine enthusiasts. Greeted by husband and wife team Hilary and George Criollo, I’m offered a cheese plate and a glass of their Gold Label Sparkling Wine, made in the méthode champenoise. This New England version of champagne is delicately dry, with a lively bubble, and sipping it is a delight. As is the story of how my hosts came to meet.

Hilary’s earliest ancestors arrived here on the Mayflower, and centuries later, Hilary’s husband George also came by sea—from a city outside of Bogotá, Columbia. Trained as a merchant marine, he’d worked on cruise ships in the 1980s, when on the advice of some American friends, he disembarked in Connecticut, pursuing his career in hospitality.

On the night he was to return to sea, George went dancing with Hilary Hopkins, eldest daughter of a dairy-farmer-turned-winemaker. By the end of the night, George would say to her, “One day you’re going to be proud to say you married a Colombian.” Twenty-seven years of marriage later, it’s safe to say she agreed.

The names and stories of Hilary and George’s successors read like a Gabriel García Márquez novel. Their five adult children include biological children Paloma Criollo and Alessandro Criollo,  plus three adoptive children. Jorje Salamanca and Staecy Bickford are George’s nephew and niece, brought over from Columbia as children. The most recent addition to the family is Anju Gautam, a young Nepalese woman who came to the family as a college student.

This is how, in a 200 year old hayloft on a top of a hill in New England, we go from talking about grape fermentation in the Berkshires, to disaster response in the Himalayas. Listening to Anju, whose family now spans continents, describe her annual visits to orphanages and villages recovering from recent earthquakes, the world feels very small.

It is clear that life on the farm has been defined by care for more than the land. Hilary and George are equally as invested in tending to people as they are in tending grapevines. Their lives are defined by fearless self-reinvention and open-hearted generosity, and it is clear that this spirit is the true secret to the centuries past and future on this extraordinary family farm. The vineyard hosts weddings, tours, and tastings in their wine bar—of estate-grown wines and light fare—open May through October.

 

 

 

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